“Anecdotal Evidence” in the Case of Wendy Cope

By A. M. JusterFebruary 27, 2018

“Anecdotal Evidence” in the Case of Wendy Cope

Anecdotal Evidence by Wendy Cope

AMERICAN POETRY LOVERS tend to be surprised when they learn that Wendy Cope is a celebrity in the United Kingdom, where the press still takes its poets seriously. Billy Collins and Claudia Rankine may be our most famous American poets, but neither is popular enough to be included in a Jeopardy! question.

In England, Wendy Cope is fair game for game shows. She first received widespread attention in her early 40s with her debut book, the 1986 surprise best seller Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, published by the venerable Faber & Faber. Cope caught the gatekeepers of the British literary establishment off guard, having circumvented most of their hurdles for young poets. The London Review of Books, for instance, praised Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis in two perfunctory paragraphs that were a small part of an omnibus review focused primarily on a book by Amy Clampitt.

A small percentage of Cope’s early work had appeared in journals such as Poetry Review and the Times Literary Supplement, which typically mark a British poet as a future star. Many of her first published poems, however, appeared through a uniquely British low-brow literary institution: weekly poetry contests that set a topic and sometimes a form. In the 1980s, Cope drew attention in these contests, particularly the large and competitive one sponsored by The Spectator.

Despite her obvious talent and Oxford education, Cope had to overcome many obstacles. She was a woman in a literary world dominated by males. She worked as an elementary school teacher, not as a professor or editor. She wrote primarily formal poetry at the highpoint of its disfavor within the academy. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to her literary acceptance was that her poems were humorous at a time when the establishment assumed that light verse had altogether died.

Opinion leaders may have given Cope short shrift, but Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis stunned them by selling almost 200,000 copies, an extraordinary number for a British poetry book. Nonetheless, critics only rarely credited Cope for anything other than simply being funny; they passed over her range of styles and subjects, her ideas, her concision, her erudition, her unpredictability, and her mastery of form.

In that book’s first poem, “Engineer’s Corner,” she has 16 lines of fun with an ad by the Engineering Council that pronounces, “In Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint.” She concludes with this quatrain:

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There’s far too much encouragement for poets —
That’s why this country’s going down the drain.

One could careen into these lines and keep laughing about the comparative values of engineers and poets without ever noticing the poem’s subtle shifts in tone and meaning. With the phrase “small boys” Cope slides in a sly dig at the engineering profession for its relentless maleness. Having made that point, she then picks up on the engineers’ “In Britain” and skewers nationalist rhetoric during a time of imperial contraction with the unexpected Larkin-tinged explanation: “That’s why this country is going down the drain.”

Such unseen left hooks are one of the delightful features of Cope’s early work. That weapon returns when she goes toe-to-toe with T. S. Eliot by brilliantly satirizing The Waste Land in five limericks that accurately capture both the action and absurdity of the poem. The last limerick begins:

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes

It then accelerates with breathtaking rhyming:

From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.

In the line that every reader anticipates as final because of the limerick form, Cope then turns away from the dry humor of compressed summary and decks Eliot for pomposity with: “I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

Few poets, if any, in Britain had written with that kind of wit since Byron.

You see this type of shift again in the wordplay of “Reading Scheme,” a villanelle that satirizes what Americans of a certain age would call a “Dick and Jane” reader. It begins by capturing the repetitive inanity of such books with a perfect ear:

Here is Peter. Here is Jane. They like fun.
Jane has a big doll. Peter has a ball.
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!

The scene seems idyllic:

Here is Mummy. She has baked a bun.
Here is the milkman. He has come to call.
Here is Peter. Here is Jane. They like fun.

Despite the many constraints of the villanelle form, the situation quickly and skillfully turns darkly comic as it becomes clear that the milkman “has come to call” on Mummy. The poem ends without the slightest deviation from the mindless cadences inflicted on first graders:

Daddy looks very cross. Has he a gun?
Up milkman! Up milkman! Over the wall!
Here is Peter. Here is Jane. They like fun.
Look, Jane, look! Look at the dog! See him run!

The humor of this conclusion may obscure the deftness of Cope’s language, although it hinges on that very deftness. The closing line is a repetend — the words have been exactly the same three times before in the poem — but it takes on a whole new meaning in the final line. Again, Cope surprises us with a jab — the tail-wagging canine conjured in the third line has slyly transformed into the randy milkman.

As much as readers have enjoyed these ingenious parodies, the signature Wendy Cope poem became one that teetered, often in a self-deprecatory way reminiscent of Horace in his Satires, between feminist expectations and romantic aspirations. Cope, whether she intended to or not, began to provide anthems for several generations of frustrated and conflicted women:

There are so many kinds of awful men —
One can’t avoid them all. She often said
She’d never make the same mistake again:
She always made a new mistake instead. (“Rondeau Redoublé”)

Few people noticed that Cope’s title was a tip of her feminist hat to Dorothy Parker’s “Rondeau Redoublé (and Scarcely Worth the Trouble, at That).”

Cope solidified her fame by crowding her second book, 1992’s Serious Concerns, with many more of these “anthems”:

Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear. (“Bloody Men”)

My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you. (“Valentine”)

One man on his own can be quite good fun
But don’t go drinking with two —
They’ll probably have an argument
And take no notice of you. (“Men and Their Boring Arguments”)

Cope’s first two books also included wistfully funny but less popular poems, such as “As Sweet” and “Letter,” which made it clear that, despite all her misgivings about men, she was still longing for a committed relationship.

These books masked considerable erudition with plainness of language, somewhat in the manner of Robert Frost. Serious Concerns displayed a little more willingness to be politically transgressive, in a characteristically wicked way, particularly in a poem commissioned by an environmental group but then rejected because it touched upon the always sensitive topic of eating owls.

By 1992, critics and the public had a fairly fixed idea of what “a Wendy Cope poem” was all about. Hiding in plain sight were the signs that this poet was more complicated. Happily entertained readers seemed not to notice a handful of anguished poems written in free verse; critics ignored them.

After the success of Serious Concerns, Cope’s life changed dramatically — and seemingly for the better. She quit teaching, and suddenly had the money and time to dedicate herself to writing. She also began living with the poet Lachlan Mackinnon, whom she married in 2013, yet literary and romantic success did not lead to an entirely happy ending. In public comments, Cope would allude to battles with depression. She became less prolific, and fewer of her poems captured the public imagination. In subsequent books her darker free verse began to crowd out the “Wendy Cope poems.”

The trend of the past two decades — namely, more contentment as well as a more serious confrontation with depression — continues with Anecdotal Evidence. For admirers of her early work, the book offers only one classic “Wendy Cope poem,” a pithy piece called “Men Talking,” although it does include other humorous poems in meter and rhyme. There are also non-ironic love lyrics, meditations on mortality, memoir poems, and mischievous verse to and about Shakespeare. Perhaps the most instructive poem is “Calculations,” which begins:

I have been a non-smoker, now, for longer than I was a smoker.

I have been a published poet almost as long as I wasn’t.

For more than half my adult years, I have earned a living without having a job.

I have been fatherless for nearly two-thirds of my life.

In the run-up to our wedding I reflect that I will not be a married woman for half as long as I was single.

With success, and the leisure that comes from success, Cope has been focusing on the existential issues that only broke into her poetry occasionally — and then usually indirectly — in her early work. This evolution has caused consternation among some admirers, but, in my opinion, as with Dylan going electric, our greatest comic poet of the past two centuries has earned the right not to be confined by the expectations created by her success.

Anecdotal Evidence has many of the strengths of Cope’s older work; it is concise, accessible, and sincere. Its poems are very good, just different from the treasured pieces of the ’80s and ’90s. An example is “Naga-Uta” (a Japanese form of alternating five and seven syllable lines — a sort of extended haiku), which begins with some quietly Anglo-Saxon alliteration and then settles into the sparer Japanese imagery associated with the form. Another example is the musically lilting “Lantern Carol,” the best of several poems in which this nonbelieving poet longs for the solace of religion. With its trimeter and a-b-c-b rhyme scheme, Cope seems more sure-footed than in her free verse poems that address the same subject. There is also a very direct love poem called “A Vow,” which risks sentimentality but succeeds in a way that the younger Cope would not have been able to pull off:

I cannot promise never to be angry;
I cannot promise always to be kind.
You know what you are taking on, my darling —
It’s only at the start that love is blind.
And yet I’m still the one you want to be with
And you're the one for me — of that I'm sure.
You are my closest friend, my favorite person,
The lover and the home I’ve waited for.
I cannot promise that I will deserve you
From this day on. I hope to pass that test.
I love you and I want to make you happy.
I promise I will do my very best.

The poems of Anecdotal Evidence in which Cope is grieving are generally her weakest work. If you are already fascinated by her, as I am, they are intriguing in the same way that a good biography would be intriguing. However, if readers are encountering Cope for the first time with this book, they may have difficulty connecting with poems such as “Absent Friends” and “Bags.”

Despite these occasional shortcomings, one has to go back to Byron to find a poet as consistently witty, wide-ranging, and technically outstanding as Cope. Enrich your life by judging not only Anecdotal Evidence, but all of her poetry.


A. M. Juster has published eight books of original and translated poetry. His most recent book is The Elegies of Maximianus (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018). He overtweets about poetry @amjuster.

LARB Contributor

A. M. Juster is the author of 10 books of original and translated poetry, including most recently John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (Paideia Institute Press, 2019) and Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020). W.W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in 2023.


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